This Commentary was published in Haaretz on 06/01/2011
Since the 1990s, there have been numerous examples of switches between the two tracks, since the politicians' working assumption is that diplomatic negotiations cannot progress along both tracks at once. Yitzhak Rabin, for instance, preferred to focus on the Syrian track, but later abandoned it in favor of the Palestinian track, which ended in the Oslo Accords. Ehud Barak also initially favored the Syrian track, but after he failed there, he decided to move over to the Palestinian track - where he also failed.
|Illustration: Syria's Assad.|
|Photo by: Amos Biderman|
And now, talks with the Palestinians have once again reached a dead end. So it's no surprise that the Syrian option is once again sprouting up. The convergence of several signs - U.S. envoy Dennis Ross' visit to Damascus, the appointment of a new American ambassador to Damascus and reports in both the Arab and the Israeli press about secret talks - evokes the possibility that perhaps the smoke really does attest to the presence of a fire, even if it is currently a small one.
Aside from the dead end on the Palestinian track, what has actually changed on the Syrian one? A great deal, but at the same time, nothing at all. Syrian President Bashar Assad's worldview hasn't changed. Ever since he took power, his stance has been consistent: He is willing to conduct negotiations and sign an agreement that will lead to a full Israeli withdrawal to the banks of Lake Kinneret, but not to normalize relations (as in the peace with Egypt ). All the rest - demilitarization of the Golan Heights, early warning stations, an industrial park on the Golan, and so forth - can be discussed during the negotiations.
What has changed, however, is the environment. Turkey is no longer Israel's ally, and therefore cannot serve as a mediator. And Iran has increased its influence over Syria (via a series of military and economic agreements ), as well as its involvement in Lebanon.
That last development is actually particularly interesting, because it creates a basis for distancing Syria from Iran due to the former's fear of becoming a mere appendage of the latter. It's worth emphasizing that despite the alliance between the two countries, Syria's natural place in the regional alignment is with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and there's nothing to prevent it from returning to that place if given the right incentives.
But what is Israel doing? Very little. It hasn't responded to Assad's proposals with the appropriate seriousness. It has plenty of excuses: Syria's alliance with Iran, its support for Hezbollah, and of course Assad's uncompromising position. Nevertheless, the Syrian conflict is riper for solution than the Palestinian one.
Most of the issues have already been resolved in previous rounds of talks, and none of the outstanding disputes (including the question of Lake Kinneret ) is anywhere near as significant as the problems of Jerusalem or the Palestinian refugees. And the advantages of a peace agreement with Syria are numerous and well-known; thus it's no surprise that many people in the defense establishment support such a deal.
But such a move requires a leadership decision. And so far, no Israeli prime minister has ever dared to make such a decision.
Judging from past experience, it is reasonable to assume that the current drilling on the Syrian track will also come up empty, since the composition of the current government does not imply any potential to exploit this opportunity. But one brave decision could alter the regional balance of power in Israel's favor and strike a decisive blow at the forces of radical Islam headed by Iran. So where's the Israeli leader who would be willing to take up the gauntlet?
The author is a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.